SEOUL, South Korea — From the accumulation of space junk in low Earth orbit to questions concerning the ownership of space resources, the 21st century space race is spawning a slew of issues that can cause conflict among spacefaring nations. 

South Korea’s vice foreign minister said last week that the most effective way to settle them is through an international diplomatic framework like the Artemis Accords. The vice minister expects the more intense the space race becomes, the more significant the role for diplomacy will be.

“The increase in the number of parties and the resulting proliferation of space activities call for a reexamination of global space governance to enable us to better manage potential conflicts and to foster a safe and predictable environment for all those involved,” said Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-moon in an Aug. 12 speech at Space Diplomacy Forum 2021, which was live streamed on YouTube. “Such challenges cannot be addressed by any one country alone, which prompts us to think that international cooperation through diplomacy will be of redoubled significance in the coming era.”

In the absence of international coordination, Choi said, countries could “easily get trapped in a race to the bottom as they strive for competitive advantage.” Unregulated space activities could also generate a host of problems, from space debris to legal uncertainties involving issues such as property rights in space, he added. 

This was the first international space diplomacy forum in South Korea since the nation signed the Artemis Accords in May. The event was co-hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI), a state think tank. 

The forum was attended by dozens of space experts and policymakers at home and abroad.

STEPI president Mun Mi-ock underscored the importance of international cooperation on space issues to effectively tackle global challenges, including climate change.

“We should break away from the traditional way of space cooperation focusing on trading of space technologies to evolve it in a way strengthening multilateral cooperation from the perspective of space diplomacy,” Mun said.

David A Turner, acting director of space affairs at the U.S. State Department, welcomed South Korea’s participation in the Artemis Accords, which he said represents America’s efforts to “promote responsible behavior in space exploration activities beyond the Earth orbit.”

Turner said while the accords are specifically focused on the civil space activities beyond the Earth orbit conducted by governments, the U.S. looks forward to “engaging with South Korea and all of our accord partners regarding the authorization in continuing supervision of our respective commercial space sectors in line with the accord principles.”

Neal Newman, deputy director of NASA’s Office of International and Interagency Relations, called South Korea an “ideal partner for NASA in the Artemis [Accords].”

“When NASA looks at Korea, we see a nation of highly educated, highly talented and very hard-working people that possess a superior technological ability,” Newman said. “We also see a nation that is very interested in leading in space, more importantly, leading responsibly in space. The Republic of Korea signed the Artemis Accords and has demonstrated that you are interested in being a strong partner with NASA and other responsible space agencies around the world, so the Republic of Korea and Koreans are ideal partners for NASA in Artemis.”

Asked what role South Korea is expected to play in the Artemis Program, Newman said it’s “very difficult to be specific for now.”

To the question about how the U.S. would react if South Korea makes any form of cooperation with China in space, Newman avoided a direct answer. Instead, he said, “We would like the Chinese to sign the Artemis Accords. I don’t know if they are interested in doing so. If they do, that would really enable even more collaboration multilaterally.”

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...